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Bush shifts on settlements { February 28 2003 }

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Bush May Signal Shift on Israeli Settlements

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 28, 2003; Page A17

In his speech Wednesday evening on postwar Iraq, President Bush signaled a shift in the administration's policy on the controversial issue of Israeli settlements, apparently embracing the Israeli government's view that substantial concessions by the Palestinians are necessary before Israel must begin to rein in the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories.

"As progress is made towards peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end," Bush said. In contrast to earlier speeches, Bush dropped a reference to a 2001 report recommending how to resolve the settlement issue, a diplomatic nuance that experts said had important implications.

Bush's comment, which attracted little attention but sparked a dispute within the administration, was slipped into a section in which he pledged his "personal commitment" to following through on his plan to quickly create a Palestinian state to live in peace with Israel. In the speech, designed to suggest greater U.S. involvement in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, Bush for the first time publicly said that one of the reasons for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power is that it would be a step toward peace in the Middle East.

In the eight months since Bush outlined his vision for resolving the conflict, many diplomats, especially in Europe and the Middle East, have said he has contributed little to the peace process but empty rhetoric. And many Middle East specialists said the administration's image in the Arab world has been badly damaged by the perception that its policies are too closely aligned with those of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

For months the administration has delayed release of a "road map" implementing the president's plan -- drafted with European, Russian and U.N. diplomats -- at the behest of the Israelis. Even now, the Israelis are seeking changes to the seven-page document, which calls for incremental steps by both sides in response to meeting certain targets, leading up to the creation of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.

"It is the commitment of our government, and my personal commitment, to implement the road map and to reach that goal" of two states, Bush told the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday.

That assertion had been avidly sought by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, State Department officials said. It also came after British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Josˇ Maria Aznar -- two of Bush's strongest supporters on Iraq -- implored the president to signal to the Arab world that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the administration's next big priority after Iraq, administration officials said.

But, in a world where every presidential statement is carefully parsed for deeper meaning, a number of experts said the pledge of personal commitment -- especially if not backed by action -- might have less of an impact than the apparent shift in policy concerning the settlements.

It has long been the position of the United States that the Israelis end expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. In his pivotal speech on the Middle East on June 24 -- and earlier -- Bush said: "Consistent with the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee, Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop."

But Wednesday, Bush said, "As progress is made towards peace, settlement activity in the occupied territories must end."

The differences may seem minor, but they could loom large in the politics of the Middle East. The Mitchell Committee, headed by former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, made suggestions in 2001 on how to end the violence. The report recommended that, as first steps, the Palestinians should end terrorism and the Israelis must end settlement activity. Experts said Bush, by dropping the reference to Mitchell, had moved closer to the Israeli position.

Under the draft road map considered by diplomats in December, in the first phrase ending in May, Israel would dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze settlement activity as the Palestinians ended terrorism, improved security and built democratic institutions.

But Bush, in his Wednesday speech, appeared to lay out a lower threshold for the Israelis: "As the terror threat is removed and security improves, [Israel] will be expected to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state."

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute, said the change in wording "is a substantial difference" that he believed "is not going to be acceptable to the Palestinians."

Martin Indyk, a former Clinton administration official who is director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, said the Israeli government had feared the administration would attach conditions regarding the settlements to loan guarantees it is seeking to shield it from the effect of an Iraq war. "They can breathe a sigh of relief," he said.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer denied the wording was a shift in policy.

A State Department official called the reference to Bush's "personal commitment" a slap at Sharon, who recently questioned whether the draft road map reflected Bush's beliefs or had been hijacked by the State Department and the Europeans.

Sharon formed a new government yesterday, an alliance of right-wing parties that many analysts believe will be less eager to strike a deal creating a Palestinian state or dismantling the Israeli settlements. A pro-Israeli lobbyist dismissed an Israeli newspaper report that Sharon intended to seek more than 100 changes in the road map before it was released. "That's a wish list," he said. Sharon plans to be in Washington at the end of March and likely would meet with Bush, he said.

The State Department official said Powell had spent the past two weeks appealing to the president to demonstrate his interest in the Middle East process to soothe the concerns of Europeans and skeptical Arabs. Yesterday, after Powell met with European Union leaders, he noted Bush's new "personal commitment" to reporters.

Bush, for his part, yesterday bristled when a reporter suggested he had not focused aggressively on the Middle East peace process. "We have been working on the Middle East every day," he said. "We work the peace issue constantly."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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